Trapped between Israel's occupation and coronavirus: How are Palestinians coping with the pandemic?

Trapped between Israel's occupation and coronavirus: How are Palestinians coping with the pandemic?
Palestinians are in a unique situation as the coronavirus spreads, facing not only a pandemic but also military occupation, a siege and systematic Israeli racism.
7 min read
18 March, 2020
Bethlehem is under lockdown [Getty]
With billions at risk worldwide from the coronavirus pandemic, Palestinians find themselves battling not just the fear of contracting the disease, but doing so under Israel's military occupation.

Currently, the number of coronavirus cases in Palestine stands at 47, with all of them in Bethlehem except for two in Tulkarem and one in Nablus.

But unlike people in other countries who have been forced into self-isolation, Palestinians have never had the luxury of negotiating their freedom of movement.

Bethlehem in lockdown 

The holy city of Bethlehem is normally buzzing with tourists from across the world. It receives around two million visitors every year, especially Christian worshippers who visit pilgrimage sites in the city, such as the Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehemites embrace their city's holy status and the tourism it brings. More than 20 percent of Bethlehem's working population is employed in the industry, which counts for 65 percent of the city's economy and 11 percent of the overall Palestinian economy.

But above all, Bethlehemites love to show off their Palestinian culture, language and customs with the rest of the world – especially in the face of systematic demonisation by their Israeli oppressors. Tourists visiting the city often don't know what to expect from the local people, but are often pleasantly surprised by their friendliness and generosity. 

Today, Bethlehem is a ghost town and the epicentre of Palestine's coronavirus. On 5 March, the Palestinian Authority (PA) officially declared that the deadly disease had reached Palestine after a group of Greek tourists who visited a Bethlehem hotel in late February had tested positive for the virus. The PA quickly locked down the city and banned entry and exit. 

Coronavirus patients are being quarantined in hotels, led by community activists. Stories of tourists quarantined in Bethlehem being subjected to kindness and solidarity by the local community have spread across the world, with food overflowing. 

"Overwhelmed with the love extended to us by the Palestinian community during our time at the Angel Hotel! We, the 13 Americans, are in the process of our journey home...but we will never forget the acts of kindness toward us!", American corona-struck pilgrim Phyllis McDuffie Creel said after returning home from Bethlehem. 

The Angel Hotel is the current hotbed for quarantine in the city.

Lack of organisation

Despite the lockdown, the PA were criticised for not doing enough to help Bethlehem.

Tulkarem-based Palestinian blogger Ahmad Biqawi gave a more realistic insight into the coronavirus crisis in Bethlehem earlier this month. He explained that beyond the perceived communal solidarity was a disorganised frenzy where civilians were left to their own devices. 

"How can we expect people to not be scared and spread panic?" he said in a vlog last week.

"If you try to find out what's happening inside the hotels, you'll realise that young activists with absolutely no medical experience risking their lives and volunteering."

"They spoke to doctors and they took advice from them on dealing with people under quarantine and are doing what they can – so that's who we're thanking," he explained.

In the video, he added that the volunteers were provided with little safety and entered the hotel wearing safety aprons similar to ones found on mechanics. Some of them were risking their health for no reason, because those quarantined had an excess of food and had asked them to leave.

He expressed fear about the practical implications of imposing the lockdown and that any mishaps by the PA could see the virus spread throughout the rest of the occupied territories.

"The situation has improved since I made that video," Ahmed told The New Arab

"The Bethlehem lockdown has been largely successful and despite rumours, the cases have been confined to Bethlehem and Tulkarem."

He said the PA has stepped up its response in Bethlehem, Tulkarem and other major Palestinian cities. 

Earlier this week, a second coronavirus case was recorded in Tulkarem. "I was very impressed at the response," Ahmed said.

"Straight after the case was recorded, dozens of people in the patient's neighbourhood were tested for coronavirus."

Fake news

Often, with panic comes misinformation. Prior to coronavirus reaching Palestine, memes were shared all over Palestinian social media – namely jokes about traditional herbal remedies as a cure for the deadly virus.

As coronavirus entered Palestine, the memes turned into misinformation. Some people posted videos claiming they had expert and insider advice on curing coronavirus. Others claimed the virus can be cured by drinking hot liquids, which they said would transfer the virus from the lungs to the stomach, thus allowing stomach acid to kill the virus.

Last week, the PA arrested a number of Palestinians in Nablus for spreading false information about the virus.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) released a video targeting misinformation within the occupied territories.

"We unapologetically champion freedom of speech, but in this case, there needs to be regulation on the information being sent around," Mousa Rimawi, director of MADA, told The New Arab.

"We've seen mass misinformation spread around symptoms and cures of coronavirus. This is very dangerous because those doing so are putting other lives at risk, often without even knowing it because the rumours have gone viral."

The rumours have at various times reached local news, with some even being fully convinced that drinking aniseed, camomile or sage tea are official advice for cures for coronavirus. The fact that all three herbs have been brewed for their medicinal properties by Palestinians for generations makes it even more believable.

Conspiracy theories, including coronavirus being used as a biological weapon have also been circulating, creating yet more panic and anxiety around the issue.

"Our aim is to direct everyone to the right sources," Mousa explained.

"We have set up information hubs for journalists to verify their stories on coronavirus and we have made sure to post links to the World Health Organisation's Arabic sources on coronavirus and to the Palestinian ministry of health."

Occupying power

Despite the situation being under control, Palestinians are still unable to steer their own fate. Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967 and the illegal occupation impacts every aspect of life, leaving their hold on the coronavirus out of their own hands.

With more than 300 cases in Israel, settlers enter Israel and their settlements freely and Palestinian workers from the West Bank are entering Israel, meaning the contagious disease could be passed on.

Inside of the illegal settlement of Einav, north of Nablus, four Israeli settlers have been diagnosed with coronavirus. Unlike Bethlehem, the settlement did not go into lockdown – only 100 people out of the settlement's 859 residents were put under quarantine. The rest were left to roam amongst themselves and Palestinians freely.

"This system is very dangerous and we have already seen its effects – the second case of coronavirus in Tulkarem happened after the Palestinian was in contact with their Israeli boss who contracted it after going abroad somewhere in Europe," Mousa explained.

"We cannot control our borders and we are seeing the dangers of it."

Racism against Palestinians

Despite some lapses in Israeli precautions, and Palestinian cases being under control, xenophobia against Palestinians has increased, with Israelis barricading their illegal settlements by cutting up logs and attacking Palestinians in nearby villages. 

"Everyone needs to remember that we're facing the crisis under a brutal occupation, and this is what makes it worse for us," Ahmed said.

The racism has even played its role in enhancing fears that coronavirus may be a biological weapon targeting Palestinians.

"This isn't a case, of course. It is not in Israel's interest to use a highly contagious biological weapon that is affecting them more than us," Mousa added. 

Gaza's blockade 

With Gaza being isolated from the rest of the world as a result of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the chances of the enclave contracting the coronavirus are low, for now. A single case, however, could have devastating ripple effects on the almost two-million population.

According to Gaza's Ministry of Social Development, 70 per cent of the population of the Gaza Strip is food insecure. In the summer of 2019, Gaza's Ministry of Health announced it was facing an "unprecedented" shortage of essential medicines and medical supplies – a situation that has not yet been alleviated.

Gazans who recently re-entered through the Rafah border with Egypt are forced to go into quarantine for two weeks in a centre where they are made to sleep on the floor – something that has been condemned as humiliating and unsafe.

Despite no one being recorded as testing positive for coronavirus, the lack of media transparency in the besieged enclave creates yet more anxiety in the besieged society.

"There isn't a reliable independent news source that everybody trusts. No transparency. Official statements are usually planned strategically. This causes confusion & stress," said Gaza-based journalist Omar Ghraieb.

With an extremely high population density of 5,453 people per km2, preventing an outbreak is paramount. However, given the lack of resources, successful prevention remains far from certain.

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh and Instagram: @flowerknafeh